The careers of Phil Neville and Gabriel Heinze overlapped for only one season, at Manchester United in 2004-05. While essentially competing for the same left back role, the pair didn't have a ton in common, not least of which the fact that they didn't speak the same language.
Yet they left a profound impact on one another. Now, the one-time teammates will soon be MLS adversaries.
Heinze was appointed head coach of Atlanta United this winter, just before Neville was named Inter Miami boss. On Sunday, they'll share the same touchline as Miami host Atlanta (1 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes). Each manager spoke glowingly of the other in pre-game press conferences leading up to their clash.
“He was a good, good teammate," Neville said Thursday. "He didn’t speak much English at the time, but he immersed himself in the club. He was a valuable member of the team. He was a good companion in the team to have.”
Neville was produced by United's academy and was part of the famed Class of '92 group of United youth players who joined the first team alongside David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes. They led the club to tremendous success, including winning the league six times between 1995 and 2003.
Heinze began his career at Newell's Old Boys in his native Argentina before venturing to Europe, joining United in 2004. He stayed until 2007.
“He’s a person who helped me a lot," Heinze said through a translator. "We talk a lot, he gave me advice. An extraordinary teammate. It’s true that sometimes we fought for the same position [at United], but I have only nice words for Phil.”
Neville departed for Everton, where he would spend the remainder of his playing career, after Heinze's debut season in Manchester.
Heinze and Neville have both earned plaudits at the beginning of their debut seasons with their clubs in MLS.
Atlanta have increased their intensity and pace under Heinze, who guided them to the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League, while Miami have been lauded for their relative cohesion, ideas and output under Neville, including a win at reigning Supporters' Shield winners Philadelphia Union.
“You always say the team mirrors the manager," Neville said. "The year I spent at United with him, he’s a ferocious competitor. Every day seemed like a cup final in training. The way he played games, he’s fearless. … He left nothing to give. His winning mentality stuck out more than anything and that’s what you see from his teams.”
Heinze struck a similar tone.
“When you look at his team, they play with a lot of passion just like he was as a player," he said of Neville's Miami. "We’re going to confront a very difficult, hard team.”
The two teams have identical 1-1-1 records after the first three weeks of the season, locked on four points apiece. But Neville said he fully expects Heinze to guide Atlanta back to the upper echelons of MLS.
“It’s going to be a really difficult game, they’ve invested really well in their team," Neville said. "I know Gabriel really well, I know the types of teams he likes to play and manage. Real intensity. They’ve had a tough schedule [so far], that’s why you see the results they’re getting. But when I watch them play, they’ve got some really good players. Exciting players. It’s going to be a tough game for us, I think Atlanta will be up there in terms of challenging to win trophies.”